Marquis de Sade

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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Portrait of the Marquis de Sade by Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo (c. 1761)
Portrait of the Marquis de Sade by Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo (c. 1761)

Donatien Alphonse-François de Sade (June 2, 1740 – December 2, 1814) (pronounced IPA: [maʁki: dəsad]) was a French aristocrat and writer of philosophy-laden and often violent pornography. He was a philosopher of extreme freedom (or at least licentiousness), unrestrained by morality, religion or law, with the pursuit of personal pleasure being the highest principle. Sade was incarcerated in various prisons and in an insane asylum for about 32 years of his life (a year in Paris, 10 years in the Bastille, a month in Conciergerie, 2 years in a fortress, a year in Madelonnettes, 3 years in Bicetre, a year in Sainte-Pelagie, 13 years in an insane asylum, Charenton); much of his writing was done during his imprisonment. The term "sadism" is derived from his name.


  • 1 Life
    • 1.1 Early life and education
    • 1.2 Title
    • 1.3 Scandals and imprisonment
    • 1.4 Return to freedom, and imprisoned for "moderatism"
    • 1.5 Imprisonment for his writings, return to Charenton, and death
  • 2 Appraisal and criticism
  • 3 Works about Sade or his books
    • 3.1 Nonfiction books
  • 4 Fictional works
  • 5 References
  • 6 External links
    • 6.1 About his life and work
    • 6.2 His works online
      • 6.2.1 French
      • 6.2.2 English


Early life and education

The castle over Lacoste.
The castle over Lacoste.

Sade was born in the Condé palace in Paris. His father was comte Jean-Bastiste François Joseph de Sade and his mother was Marie-Eléonore de Maillé de Carman, a distant cousin and lady-in-waiting of the princess of Condé. Early on he was educated by his uncle, the abbé de Sade. Sade then attended a Jesuit lycée (all boys school) and went on to follow a military career. He participated in the Seven Years' War. He returned from the war in 1763 and pursued a woman who rejected him; he then married Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, daughter of a rich magistrate, in the same year. The marriage had been arranged by his father. They would eventually have two sons and a daughter together.

His lifelong attraction to the theatre showed in 1766 when he had a private theatre constructed at his castle in La Coste, Vaucluse. His father died in January 1767.


The generations of this family alternated use of the titles marquis and comte. His grandfather, Gaspard François de Sade, was the first of this family to bear the title of marquis.[1] He was occasionally referred to as the marquis de Sade, but more often documents refer to him as the marquis de Mazan. But no reference has been found of Donatien de Sade's lands being erected into a marquisate for him or his ancestors, nor any act of registration of the title of marquis or comte by the parlement of Provence where he was domiciled. Both of these certifications would have been necessary for any legitimate title of nobility to descend legally. But the Sade family were Noblesse d'épée, that is, members of France's oldest nobility (who claimed descent from the ancient Franks). Given the loftiness of their lineage, the assumption of a noble title, in the absence of a grant from the King, was de rigueur, well-sanctioned by custom. The family's indifferent use of marquis and comte reflected the fact that the French hierarchy of titles (below the rank of duc et pair) was notional. The title of marquis was, in theory, accorded to noblemen who owned several countships. Its use by men of dubious lineage had caused it to fall into some disrepute. Precedence at court depended upon seniority of nobility and royal favor, not title. Correspondence exists in which Sade is referred to as marquis prior to his marriage by his own father. [dubious ]

Nevertheless his descendants reject the use of the unofficial or honorific title of marquis and call themselves comtes de Sade. [dubious ]

Scandals and imprisonment

It is said that he lived a scandalous libertine existence and, purportedly, repeatedly abused young prostitutes as well as employees of both sexes in his castle in La Coste. His behavior included an affair with his wife's sister, Anne-Prospere, who had come to live at the castle.

One of his first major scandals occurred on Easter Sunday in 1768, in which he procured the sexual services of a woman, Rose Keller [2] (whether she was a prostitute or not is widely disputed). He was accused of taking her to his chateau at Arcueil, imprisoning her there and sexually and physically abusing her. He was also accused of blasphemy, a serious offense at that time. She "escaped" by climbing out a second-floor window and running away. She was never paid for her services. It was at this time that la Presidente, Sade's mother-in-law, obtained a lettre de cachet from the king, excluding Sade from the jurisdiction of the courts. The lettre de cachet would later prove disastrous for the marquis.

Beginning in 1763, Sade lived mainly in or near Paris. Several prostitutes there complained about mistreatment by him, and he was put under surveillance by the police who made detailed reports on his escapades. After several short imprisonments, he was exiled to his chateau at Lacoste in 1768.[3]

An episode in Marseille in 1772 involved the non-lethal poisoning of prostitutes with the supposed aphrodisiac Spanish fly and sodomy with his male servant Latour. That year, the two were sentenced to death in absentia for sodomy and said poisoning. They fled to Italy, and Sade took his wife's sister with him, and had an affair with her. His mother-in-law never forgave him for this. She obtained a lettre de cachet for his arrest (a royal order of arrest and imprisonment without stated cause or access to the courts). Sade and Latour were caught and imprisoned at the Fortress of Miolans in late 1772 but escaped four months later.

He later hid at Lacoste where he rejoined his wife who became an accomplice in his subsequent endeavors. He kept a group of young employees at Lacoste, most of whom complained about sexual mistreatments and left quickly. Sade had to flee to Italy again. During this time, he wrote a book, Voyage d'Italie, which along with his earlier travel writings was never translated into English. In 1776 he returned to Lacoste, again hired several servant girls, most of whom fled. In 1777, the father of one of these employees came to La Coste to claim her, and fired at the Marquis at point-blank range. However, the gun misfired.

Later that year, Sade was tricked into visiting his supposedly sick mother (who had recently died) in Paris. There he was finally arrested and imprisoned in the dungeon of Vincennes. He successfully appealed his death sentence in 1778, but remained imprisoned under the lettre de cachet. He escaped but was soon recaptured. He resumed writing, and met fellow prisoner Comte de Mirabeau who also wrote erotic works, but the two disliked each other immensely. [dubious ]

In 1784, Vincennes was closed and Sade was transferred to the Bastille in Paris. On July 2, 1789, he reportedly shouted out of his cell to the crowd outside, "They are killing the prisoners here!", causing somewhat of a riot. Two days later, he was transferred to the insane asylum at Charenton near Paris. (The storming of the Bastille, marking the start of the French Revolution, occurred on July 14.) He had been working on his magnum opus, Les 120 Journées de Sodome (The 120 Days of Sodom), despairing when the manuscript was lost during his transferral; but he continued to write.

He was released from Charenton in 1790, after the new Constituent Assembly had abolished the instrument of lettre de cachet. His wife obtained a divorce soon after.

Return to freedom, and imprisoned for "moderatism"

During his time of freedom (beginning 1790), he published several of his books anonymously. He met Marie-Constance Quesnet, a former actress and mother of a six year old son who had been abandoned by her husband; Constance and Sade would stay together for the rest of his life. Sade was by now extremely obese.

He initially arranged himself with the new political situation after the revolution, called himself "Citizen Sade", and managed to obtain several official positions despite his aristocratic background. He wrote several political pamphlets. Sitting in court, when the family of his former wife came before him, he treated them favorably, even though they had schemed to have him imprisoned years earlier. He was even elected to the National Convention, where he represented the far left.

Appalled by the Reign of Terror in 1793, he wrote an admiring eulogy for Jean-Paul Marat to secure his position. Then he resigned his posts, was accused of "moderatism" and imprisoned for over a year. He barely escaped the guillotine, probably due to an administrative error. This experience presumably confirmed his life-long detestation of state tyranny and especially of the death penalty. He was released in 1794, after the overthrow and execution of Maximilien Robespierre had effectively ended the Reign of Terror.

Now all but destitute, in 1796 he had to sell his castle in Lacoste which had been sacked in 1792. (The ruins were acquired in the 1990s by fashion designer Pierre Cardin who now holds regular theatre festivals there.)

Imprisonment for his writings, return to Charenton, and death

In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the arrest of the anonymous author of Justine and Juliette. Sade was arrested at his publisher's office and imprisoned without trial, first in the Sainte-Pélagie prison and then, following allegations that he had tried to seduce young fellow prisoners there, in the harsh fortress of Bicêtre. After intervention by his family, he was declared insane in 1803 and transferred once more to the asylum at Charenton; his ex-wife and children had agreed to pay for his pension there.

Constance was allowed to live with him at Charenton. The liberal director of the institution, Abbé de Coulmier, allowed and encouraged him to stage several of his plays with the inmates as actors, to be viewed by the Parisian public. Coulmier's novel approaches to psychotherapy attracted much opposition. In 1810, Sade was denied the use of pencil, pen, ink or paper. Roland Barthes describes this as censorship of "the hand, the muscle, the blood, the finger that points to the word above the pen. Castration has been circumscribed, the literary sperm cannot drip... Without his pen, Sade stops up, becomes a eunuch...".

Sade began an affair with 13-year-old Madeleine Leclerc, an employee at Charenton. This affair lasted some 4 years, until Sade's death in 1814. One year earlier, a new director had taken over the asylum, and Sade had lost some of his privileges. He had left instructions in his will to be cremated and his ashes scattered, but instead he was buried in Charenton; his skull was later removed from the grave for phrenological examination. His son had all his remaining unpublished manuscripts burned, including the immense multi-volume work Les Journées de Florbelle.

Appraisal and criticism

Numerous writers and artistes, especially those concerned with sexuality, have been both repelled and fascinated by de Sade.

The contemporary rival pornographer Rétif de la Bretonne published an Anti-Justine in 1793.

Simone de Beauvoir (in her essay Must we burn Sade?, published in Les Temps modernes, December 1951 and January 1952) and other writers have attempted to locate traces of a radical philosophy of freedom in Sade's writings, preceding that of existentialism by some 150 years. He has also been seen as a precursor of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis in his focus on sexuality as a motive force. The surrealists admired him as one of their forerunners, and Guillaume Apollinaire famously called him "the freest spirit that has yet existed".

Pierre Klossowski, in his 1947 book Sade Mon Prochain ("Sade My Neighbor"), analyzes Sade's philosophy as a precursor of nihilism, negating both Christian values and the materialism of the Enlightenment.

One of the essays in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) is titled "Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality" and interprets the ruthless and calculating behavior of Juliette as the embodiment of the philosophy of enlightenment. Similarly, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan posited in his 1966 essay "Kant avec Sade" that de Sade's ethic was the complementary completion of the categorical imperative originally formulated by Immanuel Kant.

In his 1988 Political Theory and Modernity, William E. Connolly analyzes Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom as an argument against trend of earlier political philosophers, notably Rousseau and Hobbes, and their attempts to concile nature, reason and virtue as basis of ordered society.

In The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography (1979), Angela Carter provides a feminist reading of Sade, seeing him as a "moral pornographer" who creates spaces for women. Similarly, Susan Sontag defended both Sade and Georges Bataille's Histoire de l'oeil (Story of the Eye) in her essay, "The Pornographic Imagination" (1967) on the basis their works were transgressive texts, and argued that neither should be censored.

By contrast, Andrea Dworkin saw Sade as the exemplary woman-hating pornographer, supporting her theory that pornography inevitably leads to violence against women. One chapter of her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1979) is devoted to an analysis of Sade. Susie Bright claims that Dworkin's first novel Ice and Fire, which is rife with violence and abuse, can be seen as a modern re-telling of Sade's Juliette.[4]

Works about Sade or his books

Nonfiction books

  • Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings. By Marquis de Sade
  • Juliette." By Marquis de Sade
  • The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings." By Marquis de Sade
  • Incest (Hesperus Classics). By Marquis de Sade
  • The Crimes of Love. By Marquis de Sade
  • Letters From Prison. By Marquis de Sade
  • Marquis de Sade: his life and works. (1899) by Iwan Bloch (download)
  • Sade Mon Prochain. (1947) by Pierre Klossowski
  • Lautréamont and Sade. (1949) by Maurice Blanchot
  • The Marquis de Sade, a biography. (1961) by Gilbert Lély
  • The life and ideas of the Marquis de Sade. (1963) by Geoffrey Gorer
  • Sade, Fourier, Loyola. (1971) by Roland Barthes (Life of Sade download)
  • The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural Histry. (1979) by Angela Carter
  • The Marquis de Sade: the man, his works, and his critics: an annotated bibliography. (1986) by Colette Verger Michael
  • Sade, his ethics and rhetoric. (1989) collection of essays, edited by Colette Verger Michael
  • Marquis de Sade: A Biography. (1991) by Maurice Lever
  • The philosophy of the Marquis de Sade. (1995) by Timo Airaksinen
  • Sade contre l'Être suprême. (1996) by Philippe Sollers
  • An Erotic Beyond: Sade. (1998) by Octavio Paz (review)
  • The Marquis de Sade: a life. (1999) by Neil Schaeffer
  • At Home With the Marquis de Sade: A Life. (1999) by Francine du Plessix Gray
  • Sade: from materialism to pornography. (2002) by Caroline Warman
  • Marquis de Sade: the genius of passion. (2003) by Ronald Hayman

Fictional works

Main article: The Marquis de Sade in popular culture

Sade's life and works have been the subject of numerous fictional plays, films, pornographic or erotic drawings, etchings, etc., and other works. These include Peter Weiss's play Marat/Sade a fantasia extrapolating from the fact that Sade directed plays performed by his fellow inmates at the Charenton asylum. Yukio Mishima, Barry Yzereef, and Doug Wright also wrote plays about Sade; Weiss's and Wright's plays have been made into films. His work is referenced on film at least as early as the Luis Buñuel/Salvador Dalí film L'Age d'Or (1930), the final segment of which provides a coda to Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom, with the four debauched noblemen emerging from their mountain retreat. Pier Paolo Pasolini filmed Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), updating Sade's novel to Fascist Italy; Sade (directed by Benoit Jacquot) and Quills (2000 directed by Philip Kaufman based on Wright's play) both hit the cinemas in 2000; several horror films have used Sade as a major character. He is referenced in several stories by science fiction writer Robert Bloch, and Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem wrote an essay analyzing game-theoretical arguments that appear in Sade's novel Justine.[5] In a more comical vein, in the film "Carry on don't lose your head", the character "Duc de Pommfrit" played by Charles Hawtrey is seen reading a book by de Sade just before a foiled attempt to guillotine him.

He is also namechecked by the DC Comics character Desaad. Another graphic novel incarnation of de Sade was his inclusion as a secondary character in the Grant Morrison graphic novel series The Invisibles. The 2000 movie 'Quills' gives a fictional account of his last years at Charenton, its cast including Geoffrey Rush as De Sade, Kate Winslet as his chambermaid, Madeleine, and Joaquin Phoenix as the Abbé de Coulmier.

In 2000 the erotic comic artist Guido Crepax combined a graphic novel version of Justine with one of Anne Desclos's Histoire d'O, following Sade's example by creating something aesthetic and beautiful from the vile and degenerate.

  1. ^ Vie du Marquis de Sade by Gilbert Lêly, 1961
  2. ^ Barthes, Roland [1971] (2004). Life of Sade. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 
  3. ^ Timeline of Sade's life by Neil Schaeffer. Accessed September 12, 2006.
  4. ^ Andrea Dworkin has Died, from Susie Bright's Journal, 11 April 2005. Accessed 23 November 2006
  5. ^ Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.. "Twenty-Two Answers and Two Postscripts: An Interview with Stanislaw Lem", DePauw University, 1986. 

About his life and work

  • Sade, Marquis de. (2006). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved August 9, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service:
  • Marquis de Sade at the Internet Movie Database
  • Marquis de Sade, extensive assessment of his work, from the upcoming Routledge Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature
  • Marquis de Sade, from "books and writers"
  • Site about Neil Schaeffer's biography of Sade, includes some letters written by Sade while in prison, a timeline, and a bibliography
  • Timeline of his life
  • Biography of Sade from Channel 4.
  • A Brief Account of the Life of the Marquis de Sade, by Anthony Walker
  • Detailed description of one of de Sade's escapes
  • Extensive annotated bibliography, by Marina Pianu
  • Arms of the Sade family
  • Bataille on Sade by Geoffrey Roche

His works online


  • French Wikisource, many public domain works by Sade
  •, many works by or about Sade, in several languages.


  • Marquis de Sade elibrary -- Electronic library featuring PDFs of 120 Days of Sodom, Philosophy in the Bedroom, a short story, as well as biographical materials
  • The 120 Days of Sodom (online e-book)
  • Justine
  • Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man
  • Florville and Courval
  • Works by Marquis de Sade at Project Gutenberg

NAME de Sade, Marquis
ALTERNATIVE NAMES de Sade, Donatien Alphonse François
SHORT DESCRIPTION French writer of pornography and philosophy
DATE OF BIRTH June 2, 1740
PLACE OF BIRTH Paris, France
DATE OF DEATH December 2, 1814
PLACE OF DEATH Charenton-Saint-Maurice

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